Eight minutes long, starting with "A long, long time ago," Don McLean's "American Pie" is a slice of cultural history. Since the song's release, fans have been obsessed with answering one question: what is "American Pie" about?
"That song didn't just happen," McLean said of his 1971 hit, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and named a Song of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. The classic folk-rock anthem, known for its expansive lyrics, is filled with cultural references related to American life in the 1950s and 1960s.
"I saw the implication of America going bye-bye, since by 1971 we were a horribly divided country with tremendous anger being directed at the government over... Vietnam," McLean said in Alan Howard's book The Don McLean Story, hinting at the song's larger meaning: the disintegration of the American ideal McLean romanticized in his youth.
McLean's ambiguous writing style lends itself to all types of interpretation, and that is how he wanted it. "People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity. Of course I did," he said. "I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time."
McLean officially verified only one reference in the song: that Buddy Holly was a key influence in his life. As McLean put it, "I can say that Buddy was a huge part of my childhood dream. Long before I decided how I would use music or what kind of artist I would be, Buddy was there."
Fans have pulled apart and analyzed the rest of the "American Pie" lyrics and references through context clues, research, and finding historical parallels to the decades that inspired the creation of McLean's ballad.
'Bye, Bye Miss American Pie'
Some fans believe the "American Pie" in the famous first line of McLean's chorus refers to the name of the plane Buddy Holly perished on, but according to the federal Civil Aeronautics Board incident report about the aircraft's demise, the plane didn't have a name.
Jim Fann, creator of the Understanding American Pie website, argues the line has a potential two-fold meaning: a nod to the phrase "as American as apple pie" and an allusion to the Miss America beauty queen. The phrase "evokes a simpler time in American life when these icons held more meaning," Fann said.
‘Drove My Chevy To The Levee But The Levee Was Dry’
McLean imbues his all-American song with all-American iconography, like the Chevy automobile or truck. The dried levee (which rhymes with Chevy) adds a sense of barrenness to the current landscape in the song.
Also, an advertisement for Chevrolet in 1953 featured a jingle sung by Dinah Shore that includes a reference to a levee.
‘Singin' This'll Be The Day'
This line likely refers to Buddy Holly's song "That'll Be the Day."
Holly, along with singers the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, and pilot Roger Peterson, perished in a plane incident February 3, 1959. Their small aircraft went down on a snowy late night after a concert in Clear Lake, IA.
'A Long, Long Time Ago'
McLean released the song in 1971, but "American Pie" focuses on the 1950s, thus the exposition.